By Taylor Evensen
On November 8, 2013, one of the strongest storms ever recorded at landfall struck the Philippines, killing thousands of people and displacing millions. Just five days after Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the central Philippines, accounts of rape began to surface. Violeta Duzar, a survivor from Tacloban City, reported, “It’s the criminals who escaped from prison. They’re raping the women. Tacloban is a dead city.” Her testimony is an example of a tragedy surrounding natural disasters that isn’t widely publicized in the media: an increase in violence against women and girls.
Months later, the conditions in Tacloban are still dire. Thousands of families are living in small bunkhouses funded by the Filipino government, and authorities are still faced with the task of clearing massive debris and collecting, burying and identifying 2,500 dead bodies in the city.
As cities such as Tacloban are rebuilding, women and girls remain vulnerable to sexual violence and trafficking. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women were exposed to sexual violence in December alone. Four million people were displaced in the aftermath of the typhoon, and thousands are still living in evacuation centers. These conditions create a potentially dangerous situation for women. As Nolibelyn Macabagdala, a Filipino social worker, said: “You have a lot of people in a crowded place, without much to do. There is no electricity, so a lot of [common] places are not well lit. These are all factors that put women and girls at increased risk for violence.” While it is difficult to monitor gender-based violence in these camps, the lack of female police officers may further deter women from reporting cases of assault. For example, in Tacloban City, of the 1,300 police officers deployed in the aftermath of the typhoon, only two were women.
Even before Haiyan, the provinces of Leyte, where Tacloban City is located, and Samar were identified as major trafficking spots. The lack of job opportunities and the chaos following the typhoon has made sex trafficking and violence more of an issue. Women barter sex for food and water, and sex traffickers easily tempt young girls with promises of employment. The mass exodus of people fleeing devastating regions for Manila has further exacerbated the issue. Many refugees travel without identification, making it very difficult to track missing people.
Treating women and preventing further acts of sexual violence are imperative measures in the aftermath of the typhoon. Typhoon Haiyan destroyed or damaged hundreds of health care facilities and disrupted their services, putting the affected population in greater danger of illness and death. Women who face unintended pregnancies, maternal mortality and disability, and are vulnerable to unsafe abortion and STDs, consequently cannot receive adequate care. More than 270,000 pregnant women face heightened risks from interrupted access to skilled birth attendants and safe birthing facilities. Around 900 affected women give birth every day; 15 percent are likely to experience potentially life-threatening complications.
In response to health concerns, the United Nations Population Fund has equipped the two remaining functional hospitals and three rural health units with equipment and medicines to ensure safe deliveries. In addition, the UN is preparing these facilities for the clinical management of rape for up to 60,000 women. These hospitals are part of a larger effort led by the United Nations to provide aid to Filipino women in the form of hygiene kits, temporary maternal wards, and psychological counsel to victims of rape and displaced people. The UN’s Typhoon Action Plan is seeking $30 billion from donor nations and agencies to address these priorities.
This action plan was formed in the days following the typhoon when Britain’s International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, convened a conference in London to address the protection of women in emergencies. Greening said of the effort, “We’re on a big learning curve. What we’re trying to do is make sure that going forward we put the real focus on women and girls and keeping them safe in a way that hasn’t happened in the past enough.” Thirteen governments agreed to assume that women and girls are in greater danger of violence after natural disasters than men and boys, and that organizations should act quickly to prevent and treat it rather than waiting for confirmation that it has occurred.
While the conference represents a major step in prioritizing women’s rights, the effort to protect women from rape and provide maternal care in the Philippines remains inadequate in the months following the typhoon. Britain, Australia and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund have contributed only $3 million, and the United States has not pledged any money to the effort. This type of intervention is often not prioritized in an initial humanitarian response, as these risks are not considered life threatening.
The increase in gender-based violence following Typhoon Haiyan is not unique to the Philippines. These problems are common during natural disasters in developing countries. For example, the United Nations reported widespread sexual abuse and exploitation following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In the days following the disaster, women and girls were raped in refugee camps. High rates of sexual violence existed before the earthquake; 35,000 women and girls in Port-au-Prince were sexually assaulted in 2006 alone. However, in the aftermath of the earthquake, sexual assaults in Haiti’s capital were reported at a rate 20 times higher than other regions in Haiti. Two years after the earthquake, 370,000 people remained in displacement camps facing gender-based violence and inadequate health care. In a study published in 2012 by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, 14% of households reported at least one member as a victim of sexual assault since the earthquake.
Similarly, in July 2011, a drought in the Horn of Africa displaced millions of people and caused an influx of forced marriages and sexual violence. As 13 million people faced financial ruin and food shortages, families married off young daughters in exchange for goods. The International Peace Institute and the Africa Centre for Open Governance reported in 2011 that traffickers used drought, poverty, and conflict to smuggle people across the world with the promise of a better life.
The increase in gender-based violence following Typhoon Haiyan illustrates the unintended effect natural disasters pose against women. The collapse of traditional societal support, psychological strain on men, vulnerability of displaced women, and the structure of refugee camps all contribute to this sexual violence.
Arjun Jain of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Office has said, “These storms are not just freak storms. They are probably going to hit many coastlines all over the world, and they are probably just going to get stronger over the next few years and over the next few decades.” The ramifications of natural disasters on women are very real, and they will continue to affect other countries in the future. As an international community, we desperately need to prioritize women’s rights by considering safeguarding women and girls as part of an initial humanitarian response. Providing basic standards of security in refugee camps and providing adequate maternal care would go a long way in preventing these issues. Women should also be included in the reconstruction process. Natural disasters are of course a tragedy, but that does not mean women should suffer even more than men.
While we should strive to prevent further acts of sexual assault through disaster relief, we must also address the issue in a time of nonemergency to preempt this sort of problem. Refugee conditions increase the likelihood of gender-based violence; however, violence against women ultimately has to do with a power hierarchy that is, in part, culturally based. Male attitudes of disrespect towards women are already in place before a natural disaster strikes. The World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Providing care towards women and girls during disaster relief is just one step in addressing the larger problem of violence against women.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.
Image (Attribution License) courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.